How Pep Guardiola, NBA & NFL Helped Turn England into Potential World Champions

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportJuly 10, 2018

SAMARA, RUSSIA - JULY 07:  Harry Maguire of England celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Quarter Final match between Winner Game 55 and Winner Game 56 at Samara Arena on July 7, 2018 in Samara, Russia.  (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

The date was 30 November 2016, and despair was setting in for English football fans.

Three months on from England's ultimate embarrassment of losing to Iceland at the European Championship and its waving goodbye to boss Roy Hodgson, successor Sam Allardyce had been forced out of the job in a newspaper sting and it was announced that Gareth Southgate would lead England towards the FIFA World Cup.

A nation had mourned since the news initially broke in September.

At a time when England needed a motivator and a visionary, it seemed they had appointed the ultimate yes man. An FA official who would look smart, say the right things and change nothing.

But Southgate has surprised everyone. Within months of settling into his role, he began to put together a blueprint that would shift the face of English football.

From Manchester to Minnesota, he carried out deep research and analysis that would bring a philosophy and belief that restored pride and unity between the team and its supporters. It did not seem obvious during the process, but now, as he stands one match from England's first World Cup final since 1966, his reputation is rocketing to that of a national hero.

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Pep Guardiola's role in England's run to Wednesday's semi-final should not be underestimated, though. When he arrived in England to take charge of Manchester City in 2016, he set about revolutionising the Premier League.

It took time—his first season did not go to plan—but as Guardiola steered the side to the title last term, Southgate was observing every detail. In person and by phone, he dug into Guardiola's thoughts and emotions to understand the way City played. How they passed from the back with a three-man defence; how they played with high wing-backs yet still did not seem exposed; how Raheem Sterling and John Stones had been moulded into more thoughtful, technical footballers.

Southgate tapped into other managers, too—particularly Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, to learn more about the high energy his team showed. By the time England lined up for international friendly matches against the Netherlands and Italy in March, there was a different dynamic to the England side.

A three-man defence was in place against the Dutch, with Stones at the heart of things. City's Kyle Walker was tested as a right-sided centre-back, having been encouraged to pass out from the back. Then, four days later against Italy, Southgate implemented the next stage, with Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier on each flank. At the time, many pundits and supporters saw it as little more than an experiment, but Southgate had seen enough to convince him it was a shape and system that would give England an edge at the World Cup, and he never looked back.

"He is one of the deepest-thinking guys you could ever meet," one of Southgate's close allies told Bleacher Report. "As a footballer, it took him a lot of effort, time and dedication to work his way to the top, and he always knew it may be the same as a manager. But when the chance to manage England came along, he immediately wanted to tap into the minds of top bosses. Most let him in with open arms. He was no threat. People like Guardiola have been happy to share thoughts and ideas, and Gareth has absorbed every word."

In February, Southgate took his studies across the Atlantic, as he pitched up in Minnesota for an NBA-NFL doubleheader that would shape his more specific game plans for the tournament.

Initially making the trip as part of a Leaders in Sport summit to see Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles and meet coaches from various backgrounds, he also took in basketball action the day prior between the New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves—and it was at Target Center that he became fascinated by the movement the players were using to create space.

As described to Andrew Beaton and Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal, Southgate spent the night quizzing the people around him about different tactical aspects of the NBA game. Minority owner Ben Grossman and chief executive Chris Wright of Minnesota United, an MLS club, were among them.

"I know this is going to sound a little silly, but I actually left that night expecting England to do well in the World Cup" Grossman explained to WSJ. "You could just tell the way he went about his business that he was going to leave no stone unturned."

Wright, an Englishman who grew up in Leeds, was left stunned by Southgate's attention to detail: "In areas where he was specifically interested, he wanted to go deep."

Wright has probably been less surprised than most to watch Three Lions matches and discover that set pieces have developed as the team's strongest asset. They have mastered the pick-and-roll, the stack and the back screen. The goals by John Stones against Panama, the lead-up to Harry Kane's penalty against Colombia and Harry Maguire's header against Sweden are all good examples of great execution.

SAMARA, RUSSIA - JULY 07:    An England fan holds a replica of the world cup trophy at the end of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Quarter Final match between Sweden and England at Samara Arena on July 7, 2018 in Samara, Russia. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Southgate's trip to the Super Bowl was planned to help with his Russia master plan, but it did not solely focus on the game itself.

He was intrigued by the incredible detail that goes into the occasion, and the first noticeable thing about this England campaign was how he changed the relationship between the team and media. At a sendoff event, he made all 23 players available for interview, and every outlet had access to each player.

It was unlike anything usually seen in English football, where players are protected and every question is monitored by FA officials. This time it was an open court, and there were no rules about what could be asked. It seemed to work.

The media praised the most relaxed atmosphere they had experienced, and the players embraced the fact that no questions were being asked with the intent of catching them out. And the mood has carried into the tournament—with players going up against journalists regularly in pool and darts competitions.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - JUNE 05:  Harry Kane of England is interviewed by media during an England media session at St Georges Park on June 5, 2018 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As for the game itself, Southgate was intrigued by the detail of an NFL playbook and wanted a closeup look at how players used blocks to protect teammates to such effect. It seemed strange to him that more teams were not paying closer attention to set plays and giving themselves an edge.

Now, every corner is cheered. Every free-kick within swinging distance of the penalty box brings excitement. Eight of England's 11 goals have come from set pieces, which is the most by any team at a World Cup since Portugal in 1966—and it's no coincidence.

"He looked into small details that could make a difference, and well-planned set pieces jumped out as the most obvious way to do that," the insider told Bleacher Report. "International football has changed. It's not about exceptional individuals or even traditionally strong nations anymore. You have to have something different, and for England, this has been it. England teams of the past may not have had the belief in such an aspect, but with this young squad, it has been embraced."

Southgate has been so wise in his preparation for the World Cup that his success seems deserved. Along with FA technical director Dan Ashworth, he has accepted that football has moved on from England's last semi-final of the '90s and the so-called "Golden Generation" of the noughties.

As a country, England's men and women are full of praise and respect for Southgate. Even if their journey ends in Moscow on Wednesday night, he is already considered a winner.

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